Paul Cartledge, a professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, presented the Winslow lecture titled “Reuniting the Parthenon Marbles?” in the College Chapel on October 4. In his talk, Cartledge discussed different conceptions of the Parthenon and addressed his belief that the Parthenon sculptures currently being housed in the British Museum should be returned to Greece.
The Parthenon, which was constructed between 447 and 432 B.C., is, as Cartledge noted, “famous for being famous.” It is an icon for modernity as much as it is also an ancient ruin. In 1687, the Parthenon was hit by cannonfire and 28 of its 58 columns were destroyed. Later, in 1801, Lord Elgin was granted a permit to work on the Acropolis, and he ended up removing many of the broken sculptures to England; some were even cut down for ease of transportation. Eventually, as Cartledge explained, the British Museum purchased Elgin’s marbles on behalf of the House of Commons; these sculptures have been in the Museum’s possession since 1816.
In 1982, the British Committee for the Restitution of Parthenon Marbles, of which Cartledge is a member, was formed to encourage the return of the sculptures to Greece. Cartledge stressed the problem of terminology inherent in the group’s name: “restitution” implies that the legal and moral status quo, which has been impaired, can be rectified. He maintained however that the Parthenon no longer exists as it once was and cannot be restored to that state. It is impossible, he said, to experience the Parthenon as it was originally intended; what it has meant and what it has been has changed and evolved with the times.
Explaining one aspect of this evolution, Cartledge said that our image of the Parthenon is quite different from its original state. Originally, the sculptures were coated and then painted various colors, such as red, green, and yellow; they would not have appeared in the white marble we know them as today. They probably held items such as shields and spears, and importantly, were located outdoors, set against mountains and greenery.
While many people would like to see these statues returned to their home country, even if they are unable to be returned to their original state, Cartledge highlighted many political, emotional, and cultural reasons that some Brits cite for keeping the British marbles where they are. He pointed out that the British Museum rests its case for the retention of the sculptures on legal grounds; the Museum is bound to ensure that its collections are preserved for international scholarship and the enjoyment of the general public. Moreover, the Museum states its right to hold the marbles based on its record of stewardship.
Cartledge responded to this argument, though, by challenging the process of international scholarship. He reasoned, based on archaeological interpretation, that scholars presently study the Parthenon as a whole; therefore, the different locations of its marbles actually inhibit their study. Also, according to Cartledge, the sculptures and the architecture of the Parthenon are often studied together as a unity. Further, he highlighted the Museum’s less than exemplary record of stewardship. He indicated that some of the sculptures have been broken while in Museum custody, and a “cleaning” that occurred in the 1930s did not clean the marbles but instead removed part of their original coating; the damage from this effort is still visible today.
Citing another argument for British possession of the statues, Cartledge stated that the loss of the statues would be seen as an affront to the British Museum’s sovereignty, which is closely tied to British sovereignty. Many people stress the fact that the marbles have been in the Museum longer than the present Greek state has existed.
Despite these arguments, Cartledge maintained the necessity of returning the Parthenon marbles to Greece. He encouraged a mentality not of “giving up” the marbles, but of “giving them back” so that they might be preserved in the new Greek museum that is scheduled to open near the Acropolis in 2007. However, because the arguments in favor of continued possession are so strongly rooted in cultural heritage and cultural responsibility, he said, it appears that the situation will not be resolved quickly. “Reciprocal exchange is surely the only way forward,” Cartledge said. “To be practical and pragmatic, it is a political issue that will determine the location of the marbles.”